There's a galaxy of universal databases forming, but Microsoft Corp. is keeping its SQL Server relational DBMS in its own orbit.
As Oracle Corp., Informix Software Inc. and IBM hurry to add object capabilities to the engines of their relational databases, Microsoft's priority is to let SQL Server handle complex data such as audio and images without storing it in the engine.
Microsoft intends to achieve this via OLE DB, an API that contains the rules for accessing and managing relational, flat-file and image data. The idea is to let the images, sounds, video or maps queried by SQL Server remain stored in their native applications, a concept that clashes with the Universal database approach of putting complex data under the control of the database engine.
Although SQL Server 6.5, the current version, can't do this, the next version, code-named Sphinx and due in the second half of 1997, is being designed to communicate with other data stores, such as other relational DBMSes, spreadsheets, indexed sequential access method files or E-mail systems, said Dan Basica, Microsoft's product manager of SQL Server Marketing.
To do this, the interfaces between SQL Server's query processor and the storage engine are being opened up for third parties with the OLE DB API.
"Our approach is not database-centric," Basica said. "We think there's a ton of data out there that is not in the database that you may not want to put in the database."
In order for SQL Server to query data stored outside its engine, those other data repositories must be OLE DB-enabled to achieve what Microsoft refers to as a world of cooperating components. To that end, Microsoft shipped in September the OLE DB software development kit. Microsoft is taking the initiative by adding support for OLE DB to all of its applications.
"Trying to force everything into a relational engine is not the way to go. If Microsoft can pull off the OLE DB approach, that's going to be tremendous," said SQL Server user Paul Mahowald, vice president of IS retail development at Blockbuster Entertainment Group, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Blockbuster increasingly deals with maps and spatial data that it stores in the data's proprietary repositories, separately from the database, Mahowald said.
"It would be very good if I can get at that data through SQL but without having to store it in a relational engine," he said.
Kieran Owens, database administrator for SQL Server at Darby Group Companies Inc., in Westbury, N.Y., says he would prefer Microsoft to take SQL Server down the OLE DB path than to tinker with the engine to make it object relational.
"SQL Server 6.5 is stable, and we've been quite happy with it," Owens said. "If you start putting a lot in the engine, you always run the risk of destabilizing it. Most of our data is relational, but if we had to deal with complex data, we'd rather deal with it outside the engine with OLE DB.
"It's a compelling vision," observed Wayne Eckerson, an analyst at Patricia Seybold Group Inc., in Boston. "Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. It's compelling because you avoid the hassle of moving the data from where it is. The big question is performance because you have to go across the network. But there might be some merit to not putting everything into one engine."
"This approach is appealing because it insulates users from change because they will be able to leave the complex data where it is," added Donald DePalma, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.
"That's the 'inertia appeal.' And why would people take that data out of an efficient data store?"